Erratum: An incomplete version of this piece was posted on Friday, January 10, 2020. The corrected version was updated on Sunday, January 12, 2020. We apologize to the author for the error.
by Kelsey Lahr
Kelsey Lahr is a communication professor at Los Angeles Pacific University. Her scholarly interests include climate change communication and environmental rhetorics. She also works summers as a seasonal Ranger in Yosemite National Park. Her writing about life in Yosemite has appeared in The Cresset, Gold Man Review, Green Briar Review, Saint Katherine’s Review, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize as well as inclusion in America’s Best Science and Nature Writing series. You can find links to her published work at https://kelseylahr.wordpress.com/.
There were a few weeks this fall when everything seemed pretty hopeless to people who care about the environment. Greta Thunberg was showing the world what climate rage looks like. Perhaps as a response, climate despair got a lot of coverage around the same time. On September 7, 2019, NPR’s Scott Simon delivered an on-air op-ed about mass extinction. The following day, The New Yorker published an essay by novelist Jonathan Franzen titled “What if We Stopped Pretending?”, which asked readers to reconsider what it means to have hope, given that the “climate apocalypse” can no longer be averted. On September 19, the New York Times published an op-ed exploring whether or not it is ethical to have children in the era of climate change.
At bottom, each of these pieces asked the same question: Where can we find hope for a future that will be devastated by climate change? Scott Simon, in particular, hit on a theme that appears again and again in environmental discourse—the idea that the earth will endure, and will thrive once again, when humans eventually go extinct. “…Earth endures,” Simon says. “It’s us, all the living things that inhabit it for a while, who are fragile…”
Here we find a perverse but very rational sort of hope, bound up with the notion of human extinction. It is a brand of hope that says that humans are irredeemable. We will trash the earth for as long as we inhabit it. Then, once we bring about our own demise, the earth will have the last laugh. It is hope by way of despair. I identify with this kind of despair, but I’ve also been thinking lately about other sources of hope in the face of climate change. Where you get your hope, if you get it anywhere, depends a lot on your politics, your understanding of science, and if you’re a Christian, your understanding of Scripture.
I recently published an essay at The Cresset that indulged in environmental despair. I wrote about environmental degradation, and the fact that we know that our behavior is causing mass extinction, yet we don’t do anything about it. I wrote about my own grief at all we are losing, all we have already lost.
I was also, I admit, writing about eschatology, the branch of theology concerned with the end of all things, the ultimate fate of the human soul and the world. By my lights, the Bible is not particularly clear on the topic, but several passages indicate that this earth will be burned up, and replaced by a new heaven and a new earth in which there will be no night and no cold (Zechariah 14: 6-8; 2 Peter 3:7; Revelation 21). This is not an eternity I want, I confessed in the essay, and in fact the description of “Heaven” is pretty apt for our current world, where artificial lights have not only gotten rid of darkness, but also blocked our view of the stars, while an ever warming climate is rapidly abolishing cold.
And I personally would not consider our current world to be anything akin to paradise, but actually fairly hellish. “This earth, the one that Revelation and Second Peter say will pass away, is already well on its way to being a place of one continuous summer afternoon,” I wrote in the essay. “Electric lights instead of dark night. Warmer and warmer days, sunshine and drought instead of cold and snow. As we reshape the climate and the very boundaries of day and night, we are already creating the new earth. But instead of the glory of God as the source of light and warmth, it is us and our machines. Either way, I want the old earth, the one with daily and seasonal shifts, the play of light and shadow, a cold wind… If God is going to burn it all up, then he can burn me up with it, because I want no part of any eternity that doesn’t have stars.”
Some of my theologically-minded acquaintances reached out to offer some hope by correcting my eschatology.
“There are lots of faith traditions that don’t believe we’ll lose any of this good and beautiful earth when God moves all creation to new creation, that it will in fact be this very earth but all put to right by God’s reign of light and love and peace and justice,” commented my friend Alicia, a pastor, on the link to the essay I had posted on Facebook.
“I happened to read your recent essay in The Cresset…” said a kind former colleague in an email. “There is always the possibility, to which I cling, that the world-consuming fire in 2 Peter 3:7 is a fire of cleansing and purification, not of outright destruction, a word applied in the verse to ‘the godless,’ not to the earth itself.”
Even my grandmother responded, elevating terse email to an art form: “Having read your pieces on Facebook, I’d like to comment on your quotes about no darkness or night in heaven. I think those words are synonymous with sin and evil. Therefore, no sin and/evil in heaven. I think heaven will have everything we love about nature, only magnified. So, no need to be concerned about no stars in heaven. Love, Gram”
To be honest, I was being intentionally provocative in that essay. Truthfully, I don’t spend that much time thinking about the end of all things, because I don’t see much point in it, and because the Bible says about a million different and often contradictory things about the end and I don’t know what to make of any of it. I was struck, though, by these responses from my acquaintances, two of whom are avid nature-lovers and one of whom is an old woman who probably misses a lot of things that are gone now. Those responses got me thinking about the unique situation of Christian environmentalists, who, like most other environmentalists, feel grief and rage at species loss and the degradation of the earth, while also possessing a rare and genuine hope that is perhaps denied to irreligious environmentalists. Not hope that the earth will endure and re-evolve intelligent life and beautiful biodiversity once we go extinct, but hope that the earth’s old glory, the glory we’ve destroyed, will be restored in the hereafter.
Maybe because of my, um, shaky eschatology, I find it difficult to land on one kind of hope or another—either the hope of restoration shared by Christian environmentalists, or hope via despair, à la Scott Simon. I’m generally leery of Christian thought as it relates to the environment; at this point it’s a cliché to note that Judeo-Christian ideologies of human dominion over the earth did a great deal to bring about the current mess. The idea that God will burn up the Earth has led many evangelicals to treat it like a giant garbage dump. At the fundamentalist Baptist church where I grew up, I often heard, “It’s all gonna burn anyway.” Conservative Evangelical publications like The Christian Post still regularly publish op-eds calling mainstream climate science into question. In response to September’s global climate strike, The Christian Post’s Michael Brown wrote,
It’s true that this world will not endure forever. One day, Jesus will return and make a new heaven and earth. So, live your life here with passion, in expectation of His return, making every moment count. That way, whether you live to be 100 or if He comes back in 10 years, your life will be full and blessed. I challenge a climate change religionist to come up with a better message than that.”
From this perspective, protecting the environment is obviously not a high priority.
Of course, this is most definitely not the perspective advocated by Alicia or my former colleague, and probably not by my Gram either. There are many, many Christians who love the Earth precisely because it is God’s creation, and all God’s creation deserves nothing less than our utmost respect and care. (I suspect they also love the Earth for its own sake, as I do, because it is beautiful and vast and incomprehensibly complex.) For them, I think, restoration is the answer to their grief at all we are losing. How beautiful it must be to say to oneself, “Someday I’ll get to see Carolina parakeets! And passenger pigeons! And Tasmanian tigers! In the next world, the Great Barrier Reef will still be vibrant!”
I want to believe this. But, like I said, I don’t know what to believe about the next world, if there even is one. (Christian orthodoxy obviously says that there is one. But I never claimed to be good at faith, or particularly orthodox.) And I also find myself questioning if hope for a restored Earth is really all that different, in practice, from the It’s-All-Gonna-Burn-Anyway school of thought. Ultimately, both of lines of thinking let us off the hook for the long-term fate of the earth. God will burn it all up, or God will put it all right eventually. Either way, why worry about it?
Some Christians respond by focusing on the human toll of climate change here and now. For example, Galen Carey, the National Association of Evangelicals’ vice president of government relations, told Christianity Today,
Christians should be at the forefront of efforts to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions because we know that this is our Father’s world. We also know that these efforts will particularly benefit our most vulnerable neighbors, those whose health and livelihoods most directly depend on clean air and a stable climate.
This is a response I appreciate, because it strives to hold Christians accountable for our treatment of the Earth, while recognizing that human wellbeing is inextricably tied to the health of the environment. I myself am uncomfortable with this level of anthropocentrism; I care deeply about the millions of species that are threatened or have already been wiped out by human activity, and I care about the integrity of ecosystems for their own sake, not only as they relate to human wellbeing. But I also recognize, even if I’m not sure I buy it personally, that Christian orthodoxy gives humans a special place among all creation because we alone are said to bear the image of God. So for Christians to care about the environment because the environment matters for humanity—it’s a perspective I understand and respect. And if that perspective leads to environmental advocacy and sustainable action on the part of Christians, I don’t much care what kind of theology underlies it.
So where does that leave me? I don’t exactly know. I want to believe that God will eventually restore the Earth to the beauty and complexity and diversity that we have largely destroyed. I want to believe a lot of things. In the end, I’m left with the knowledge that action is required, and it is the right thing, no matter where I find my hope for the future. Maybe the earth will persist long after humans have passed from the scene, and something unimaginable and complex and pristine will spring up in our absence. Maybe in the next world, God will restore all we have lost. Maybe something else entirely. In the meantime, humans and countless other creatures depend on us to get our act together and reverse as much environmental devastation as we can. I am reminded of the words of Kyle Van Houtan, chief scientist at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium who also studied theology at Duke Divinity School. He told Christianity Today that it is “important for Christians to understand the long game and do something that we’re called to do because it’s good, independent of the results and effectiveness that we may observe ourselves.” To that I can only say, God help us, amen.